What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game of chance in which some people win money or goods. Some governments run state lotteries and others operate national ones. In general, to have a lottery you need a pool of tickets or counterfoils with winners selected through some random selection procedure. Often, the number of winners is determined by drawing lots (sometimes called heads or tails), but other methods are used as well, including shaking or tossing the tickets. Computers are also widely employed in modern lotteries to generate a random selection of winning numbers or symbols. Various costs and profits are deducted from the total pool, usually to cover administrative expenses and advertising, leaving the remainder for the prizewinners.

For most players, the primary motivation to play a lottery is the entertainment value, or “utility,” of the chance to win a prize. Purchasing a ticket is a rational decision, if the expected utility of winning a prize exceeds the cost of purchasing and maintaining the ticket. In many cases, this is true even when the ticket has a very low probability of winning.

However, there is an important caveat: if the disutility of losing a large sum exceeds the expected utility of winning a small amount, the individual may not be acting rationally. This is particularly true if the disutility of losing reaches psychologically damaging levels. In such cases, individuals should be allowed to opt out of the lottery.

The lottery is a popular pastime that has a long history, dating back at least to the Roman Empire—Nero was a big fan—and ancient Egypt. The Bible references it as a way of divining God’s will, and the lottery was once used to give away slaves and land. In early America, lotteries became a popular way for states to finance their services, and Cohen observes that they were “a rare point of agreement between Thomas Jefferson, who considered them a form of hidden taxation, and Alexander Hamilton, who grasped their essence: Everybody would be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the chance of considerable gain.”

But the lottery is more than just a gamble; it is a government subsidy and a form of social control. Some critics have accused it of preying on the economically disadvantaged by offering them the illusion of instant riches. They have also pointed out that lottery sales spike when incomes fall and unemployment rise, and are heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, black, or Latino.

But the defenders of the lottery argue that lottery participation is entirely voluntary, and that people can choose to spend their money wisely or foolishly. But that is an unsatisfactory answer. The fact is that lottery spending is responsive to economic fluctuations, and it is fueled by the desire to improve one’s chances of success through luck. It is a human urge, and it isn’t going to go away any time soon. It is just a question of how much we tolerate the loss of our sense of reason in pursuit of it.